Stuffed lions, zebra rugs, python skin cig cases

Officers for Ruzial Ltd, the corporate entity that owned the 150ft yacht Mystère, yesterday pleaded guilty to attempting to import 29 wildlife items into the US without a permit. Many of the items included species protected under US and international law, IBI reports.

US Customs officials in late 2007 discovered what amounted to a big-game hunter’s collection of exotic and endangered species aboard Mystère after it arrived from Italy to Ft Lauderdale aboard a large freighter.

The illegal items included a stuffed lion, rugs made of zebra, jaguar, leopard and tiger. There were also bar stools covered in zebra skin and cigarette cases made out of python skin. Federal prosecutors estimated that the collection was worth US$100,000.

After pleading guilty, Ruzial Ltd, registered in the Cayman Islands, paid a fine of US$150,000. Signing the guilty plea was the company’s director, Tamir Sapir, and his two attorneys. Sapir is a Soviet-born billionaire who owns several New York office buildings. In March, Forbes magazine ranked Sapir 522 among its list of the world’s richest billionaires, with a net worth US$1.4bn.

US District Court Judge William Dimitrouleas accepted Ruzial’s plea and ordered Ruzial to pay a criminal fine of US$50,000, payable to the Lacey Act Reward Fund and US$100,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The second entity is a Congressionally-chartered organisation authorised by law to receive payments arising as a result of criminal convictions.

US Attorney Alex Acosta said at a press conference that the yacht was owned by a corporation, so no individuals were charged. He also added that individuals involved might be outside the jurisdiction of the United States, but did not elaborate. “It’s a very important case and we prosecuted it vigorously,” he was quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

A statement by the US Attorney’s office said US$100,000 of the fine will be used to build exhibits at airports and other international embarkation points in South Florida that warn about restrictions of trafficking in protected species.

“Using a significant portion of this fine to raise awareness about those rules is the right thing to do as we work to promote the conservation of wildlife here and abroad,” said special agent in charge James Gale, US Fish & Wildlife Service, in the statement.